August 8, 2014 4:43 pm

The Inventory: Sara Paretsky

‘Ambition takes talent further than talent can go on its own, alas’
Sara Paretsky©Shauna Bittle

Sara Paretsky, 67, the American creator of female private eye VI Warshawski, is credited with inventing the modern gritty female detective genre in her 1982 novel Indemnity Only. Her 16 best-selling Warshawski novels have won many awards.

What was your earliest ambition?

I worshipped Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Alonso and planned to become a dancer as fabulous as them. That I was chubby and had no flexibility didn’t kill the dream, at least not until I was 10. I also wanted to be a jet pilot like my war-hero uncle John.

Public or state school? University or straight into work?

State schools all the way until postgraduate education. I started supporting myself at 17 as a clerk then secretary, all those lovely pink-collar jobs, then took a year between undergraduate and graduate education to work even harder at even more demoralising occupations.

Who was your mentor?

The writer Dorothy Salisbury Davis in my writing life. When I was at the University of Kansas in 1964, the Dean of Women, Emily Taylor, transformed my world: she was the first person to tell me I could play a role on a bigger stage than the home.

How fit are you?

Medium. I used to be a runner and weightlifter, but after an injury in a car crash eight years ago, I’ve been lucky to return to walking and stretching.

If you had a coat of arms, what would be on it?

Sara Paretsky coat of arms

A dinner plate with knife and fork crossed. Above it: ‘Always Clean Your Plate.’ Below it: ‘Never Skip a Meal.’

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Ambition takes talent further than talent can go on its own, alas.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

My father was convinced he had produced imbecilic children, so he had our IQs tested in primary school.

How politically committed are you?

Almost frothing in the mouth, but I try to dial it back in public.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

I do – I wonder if worry and guilt are an adequate substitute for action. I serve on the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was established by Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe et al in the wake of the Manhattan Project to advocate for civilian control of nuclear energy. We have a joint mission addressing policy issues on climate change.

Do you have more than one home?

I can barely look after one home.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

I’d like to have skills – to be fluent in French and Spanish, for instance, or to have an exquisitely trained singing voice (I sing for fun).

Margot Fonteyn in performance©Getty

Childhood idol: Margot Fonteyn

Your biggest extravagance?

Clothes.

In what place are you happiest?

We have a beautiful wilderness park half a mile from my house. Walking in there and on to the Lake Michigan shore brings me great peace.

What ambitions do you still have?

To learn to write with greater freedom, greater boldness.

What drives you on?

As long as stories keep coming to me, I want to write them down.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

My writing career is something I’m very proud of. Also, the advocacy I’ve done for women, through creating Sisters in Crime, and my foundation, Sara & Two C-Dogs, I’m proud of supporting women and children in the arts and science.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

I’m always wishing that I wrote better, with greater clarity.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?

She would be startled.

Lake Michigan©Dreamstime

Happiest place: Lake Michigan

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

I hope I’d do like Kipling’s “If” – stoop and build them up with worn-out tools.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

I don’t know.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

I wish I could but I’m not able to.

How satisfied are you with your life so far, out of 10?

Eight.

-------------------------------------------

Sara Paretsky appears at the Edinburgh Festival on August 16. ‘Critical Mass’ by Sara Paretsky is published in paperback by Hodder at £7.99 on August 28.

Photographs: Shauna Bittle; Dreamstime; Getty

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE